The Ghost Cats Ninth Life

The Ghost Cats Ninth Life Title: The Ghost Cats Ninth Life Author: Wendy Williams Source: Audobon, July/August 2000 This article, The Ghost Cats Ninth Life, is about the fate of the Ocelot in South Texas. Not much remains of the ocelot. They are a wild member of the cat family; just a little bigger than a big housecat Although scientists know little of this rare and reclusive cat, they have estimated that only about 80 ocelots remain in the United States, mostly on federally reserved land. Ocelots have been listed on the endangered species list since 1982. The primary cause for their decline is thought to be habitat loss; the only area they are known to exist anymore is a small area of the Rio Grande delta at the tip of southern Texas.

Ocelots are very tough to observe in their native habitat. Their markings blend nearly perfectly with their environment. Because they are similar in structure to a bobcat, observers often cannot tell from tracks or other evidence whether an observed animal is a bobcat (which are plentiful in the area,) or the rare ocelot. Since 1990 though, a lot more information has been gained about the life of the ocelot. Long ago, the southern most tip of the Rio Grande delta was a beautiful area, lush with native vegetation. In the last 150 years though, this area has become economically depressed.

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The poorer people that have settled here, took up farming as a means to survive and prosper. Cotton, the crop of choice in this area, has been overgrown and now the previously rich soil is barren. Their cattle and other farm animals have destroyed any remaining vegetation . The ocelot requires low brush cover in order to thrive. Ninety-five percent of their native land cover has been altered.

Ocelots have not been able to adapt to the wide open spaces that have resulted from excessive agricultural use. What remains of suitable ocelot habitat is over highly productive farmland. Compounding this problem is that much of the remaining habitat is not interconnected. This means that there is not sufficient room in most of the prime habitat for the species to spread out. The busy highways and roadways of the Rio Grande delta are the ocelot’s greatest predator.

As the ocelot moves about in the remaining habitat, it must cross highways and the success rate has not been good. Since 1994, 10% of ocelot deaths have been due to being hit by vehicles while trying to cross these highways and the state wants to build more. Many people, now aware of the ocelot and their dwindling numbers are beginning to take action. The Texas Department of Transportation has tried to build culverts under the highways for the ocelot to use, but the culverts, being below road grade, filled with rainwater and the cats would not use them. What they need to do is build 3-5 foot box type runways at ground level.

This solution would require a lot of money to repeatedly raise the roadway at every location they feel they need to put a runway. The federal government has approved a plan to acquire enough land to double the size of the Altascasa Refuge, the last stronghold of the ocelot. The government has done this by purchasing easements on 108,000 acres of farm/range land. They will restore this land to it’s natural state. Some large ranch owners are also making efforts to preserve habitat for the ocelot.

They have set aside hundreds of acres of their properties to natural vegetation. One of the best hopes for the ocelot habitat is a booming eco-tourism in South Texas. Bird watching in this area now brings in more than 100 million dollars annually for the region. Bird and Breakfasts are springing up all over the area. The fate of the ocelot is one familiar story.

Man comes in and uncaringly destroys all the native land in order to prosper. I don’t believe this is truly the case though. As the article stated, no one knew much of the ocelot, scientifically, before 1990. By that time, the land had already been converted to agricultural uses and roads had been built. Modern man has a need to thrive also. It is encouraging to me now that the problem has been identified, solutions are in the works.

They are not cheap though and as we all know about modern economics–money rules any project. It is sad that the ocelot has suffered the fate that it has. I think that because the residents of this area had to do what they had to do to survive, the error is one of ignorance rather than malice. It is reassuring that everyone from the local farmers and ranchers to the federal government is now taking steps to allow the ocelot to coexist with the modern human society. Animal Science.